It’s September 19, 2005. Two SAS soldiers are being held hostage by insurgents known as the ‘Basra Murder Squad’. Rabia is summoned to negotiate their release. She finds herself staring down the end of an AK47 and is lucky to escape with her life. When she returns to base, the army not only refuses to recognise her contribution, but also swears her to silence.
From dealing with insurgents, to suing the British Army for discrimination, Rabia Siddique has overcome adversity at every turn.
As a daughter of an Indian Muslim father and white Australian mother, what was it like growing up in Anglo-Australian Perth in the 1970s?
As someone who spent her early years in India, Australia in comparison was definitely a clean, safe, sunny place to grow up. When we arrived in Australia in the late 1970s, it was a welcoming place, but there was a lot of pressure on migrants to “fit in” and become an “Aussie” – what that meant, I was never entirely certain. Living in a very white, conservative, modest neighbourhood, I felt I stood out, and as a little girl I resented looking and sounding different compared to everyone else around me. I disliked my unusual Muslim name (that no one could pronounce or spell) and my English accent, and just wanted to be invisible.
As I grew older, and as a result of attending a very inclusive, supportive secondary school, I eventually became more self-confident and started embracing my uniqueness and rich cultural heritage. I became proud to call myself an Indian, Muslim Australian and realised I deserved to be treated and regarded equally to all those around me.
My school’s motto was “Strive For The Highest” and that is indeed what I did. I was a big dreamer and truly believed I was capable of achieving anything I set my mind to. Growing up in Australia allowed me to become this person and I am forever thankful for the opportunities, education and support I received.
How have the challenges and experiences you encountered as a young person shaped your sense of justice?
I recall witnessing firsthand the challenges and prejudice my father experienced as a dark-skinned Indian Muslim in the years after we immigrated to Australia. I remember thinking how sad and disappointing it was that people could be so harsh, and pre-judge others based on the colour of their skin, their religion and the accent with which they spoke. This experience certainly gave me a strong and early sense of social justice and passion for equality.
Thankfully, I believe we have become a more accepting, tolerant and multicultural society over the last few decades and most of us celebrate the richness and diversity that migrants have brought to this beautiful country we call home.
How did these challenges influence your early career choices prior to enlisting in the British Army in 2001? For example, how did these experiences drive your aspiration to pursue a career in International Humanitarian Law?
At the tender age of nine I was sexually abused by an elderly neighbour. When I eventually told my parents, they told me never to speak of the abuse to anyone. The shame, humiliation and shock was too much for them to bear and no police complaint was made and I never received the justice I deserved. I felt so incredibly powerless and voiceless and I am certain that this traumatic experience influenced my decision to become a lawyer – in the hope that I could play a part in seeking access to justice for others and giving those that had also suffered in silence a voice.
Why did you join the British Army? What did you hope to achieve during your time working there?
A career in the Armed Forces was never part of my plan! It came about as a result of me taking part in a voluntary community aid expedition to South America in 1999. This expedition was supported by the British Army and a good friend from the Army that I made on that exped convinced me that commissioning as an officer would provide a means to an end for me. Becoming a legal officer in the British Army would allow me to work in The Hague alongside International Tribunals, with victims of the most abhorrent human rights abuses and would allow me to access war torn countries and victims of war crimes that I would never have access to outside of the Armed Forces.
It was these opportunities to do some good on a large scale and reach those that had been suffering in silence for so long that attracted me to a legal career in the British military.
What did you think of your appointment as a UK Brigade legal advisor as someone who was young, a woman and who identified as Muslim?
I was very surprised to discover in 2004 that I had been selected to deploy as the sole UK Brigade Legal Adviser to Iraq in 2005. I hoped that I had been chosen above others because of my background and the unique perspective and approach I brought to my work. This gave me cause for hope and optimism that the Army saw in me someone who brought empathy, humility and a sense of fairness to my International duties.
How did you come to be the principal negotiator in the release of the two SAS soldier hostages from the Serious Crimes Unit, or the Basra Murder Squad, as you refer to in your book? What was running through your mind? Did any of this prepare you for the events of September 19, 2005?
I believe the reason I was requested by the Iraqi authorities to lead negotiations on that fateful day was because I had proven to them that I was someone of integrity and someone they could trust. I always approached my work with them with dignity, mutual respect and very much aware that I was an uninvited guest in their country. I always tried to speak a little Arabic and wore a hijab to all my meetings with Iraqi officials – both as a sign of respect and courtesy. These small efforts went a long way to establishing and building strong and productive relationships.
When I was requested by the Iraqis and ordered into to the Al Jamiat compound to start negotiations my first reaction was that I was ill prepared and not equipped for the job. I was a legal officer. I had no training as a hostage negotiator, nor was a trained to a high level in close hand-to-hand combat. But it became clear very quickly that there was no other option or choice, that the two SAS soldiers’ lives depended on me, so I realised I had to step up and embrace this new mission – as a senior officer and a leader. I had to lead by example and from the front, just as I had been trained to do. This was my moment of reckoning I guess you could say.
What happened after you landed in the Al-Jamiat?
As we approached and hovered over the Kaniat, I wasn’t prepared for the sight that greeted me. About 200 angry Iraqis surrounded the compound. They were throwing stones at the group of about 80 British soldiers desperately trying to keep them contained and calm. I could hear the crackle of gunfire from the helicopter as we approached for landing and I could see smoke. Somehow we landed safely and I jostled my way throughout the angry crowd and made my way to the compound gates. I was met by James Woodham, my colleague who had been sent into the compound about an hour before me, and who had sent word back that the Iraqis would not negotiate with him, only me. We were taken to a makeshift office inside the compound where I was greeted by an Iraqi judge and I quickly commenced negotiations.
The negotiations were going well until a few hours in, when all hell broke lose outside. The crowd has swollen to about 3000, they had set fire to British soldiers and tanks and stormed the compound. In that instant everything changed and I too became a hostage as the terrorist police officers who were running the compound took control.
In the hours that followed at times I didn’t think I would come out of this situation alive, but eventually and miraculously we were all rescued – just in time for the two SAS soldiers as they were about to be executed.
How did the events, following your return to the base, influence and inform your sense of justice?
On our return to base James received a hero’s welcome and was sent in for immediate military intelligence de-briefing – which was standard military procedure and what I had expected we would all be subjected to, especially me since I was the only Arabic speaking person in our group that day. However I was greeted by my Commander with a kiss on the cheek, a cup of tea and told to return to my tent to rest.
The silence in relation to the role I had played in leading negotiations that day was deafening. In the weeks and the months to come it became clear that my involvement was to be covered up and I was to be written out of history. I was ordered never to speak of my involvement in the incident. At that point I had a flashback to the powerless and voiceless Rabia – but this time I wasn’t the insecure, naive little girl I had been all those years ago…
In light of this, how did you feel when you were later moved to a post focused on promoting equality and diversity?
It really was an inspired decision by the Army to post me into a role as the Armed Forces first Equality and Diversity Legal Officer! I spent every day in this new post on my return from Iraq drafting policies and raising awareness about equality and diversity, and played a key role in trying to bring the British Armed Forces into the 21st century – to become a more diverse and representative Armed Forces.
My face was also used in recruitment campaign posters – I became one of the faces of the new diverse British Army!
So what sort of a hypocrite would I have been if I wasn’t prepared to take a stand against the very personal discrimination I was suffering from? What sort of a leader and example setter would I have been if I wasn’t prepared to have the moral courage to act and defend the values I had dedicated my life to?
What compelled you to pursue a case against the UK Ministry of Defence?
I spent almost two years exhausting every informal avenue available to me to address and right this injustice, until the only option available was to submit a discrimination case against the British Armed Forces and therefore to also sue the British Ministry of Defence. It wasn’t a decision I took lightly, and I knew it would mean the end of the military career I had come to love, but this was a sacrifice I knew I had to make in order to take a stand against this unacceptable conduct. I needed the justice more than my military career. I needed to speak up and be counted – for my own authenticity and wellbeing.
How did you balance this with the challenges that you were facing personally?
The journey from mounting my discrimination case to eventually succeeding was an extremely traumatic one. In the lead up to the case being heard, I suffered a rare ectopic pregnancy that almost cost me my life, just after finding out that James Woodham had been awarded a Military Cross for his role in the Al-Jamiat incident and I received nothing but a hug and [was] ordered to remain silent. As I was recovering from this serious condition, which I believed would mean I would never become a mother, my husband was diagnosed with cancer. As we were awaiting my husband’s diagnosis I then received news that a close Iraqi colleague and friend had been murdered – as a direct result of the human rights work we had been doing together in Iraq. He was survived by a beautiful wife and two small children and I was devastated and felt responsible for his death.
To say that the road to justice for me was hell was not an understatement. In addition to everything my husband and I were dealing with personally, the British Government tried every trick in the book to intimidate me into dropping the case – but they underestimated my strength and resolve, a mistake they would live to regret!
In law, it is often said that “Justice should not only be done; it must also be seen to be done.” How do you think this played out in your battle for recognition? Do you think attitudes have changed towards women in the military in the years since you succeeded in your case against the UK Ministry of Defence?
My discrimination case became a UK landmark case, and received much media attention, in the same way that the unacceptable conduct of soldiers and officers at Duntroon and ADFA has received much social media and press attention in this country.
Thankfully, we no longer live in a world where bullying, harassment, discrimination and abuse can go unnoticed and hidden, and our leaders and military commanders have no choice but to acknowledge the problem and tackle it head on.
For entrenched, institutional attitudes and cultures to truly change it will take more brave men and women to stand up and share their stories, for leaders to set a new tone and lead by example, and for Government policies and legislation to robustly address and enforce breaches and violations of our right to equality, fairness and justice.
What motivated you to write Equal Justice? Did the underlying message of the book drive your decision to put pen to paper or did this evolve during the course of writing?
I was persuaded to write Equal Justice because I came to realise my story was one that needed to be told and people needed to hear. The issues I address and the messages I convey within my story resonate with so many people. My ultimate decision to write the book was based on the hope that it might in some way inspire and motivate others to become agents for change – the response I have had to the book has been overwhelming and humbling.
It has changed my life in ways I didn’t expect and it has led me to a new career path, where I now dedicate my time to working with people and organisations in order to help them become more authentic and ethical leaders, more resilient people and companies and more equal and diverse organisations and communities. My life’s work is continuing, but in new, exciting and rewarding ways. I am truly blessed.
In the movie adaptation of Equal Justice, there are whispers that Angelina Jolie will star as yourself. If you could choose anyone, living or passed, who would you like to portray you in the film?
Don’t believe everything you read! The cast for the film hasn’t been decided yet so watch this space! I haven’t given much thought to who should play me, my focus is on ensuring the film maintains some integrity and is largely true to the book and my story.
In your opinion what are the biggest challenges faced by women today in a professional or social context? What sort of strategies do you think women should adopt to overcome such challenges?
Subconscious bias and this mythical concept of work/life balance are the two biggest challenges I see for working women in our society today.
As a sex, we need to do a better job supporting, encouraging and standing by our sisters, and we need to get more men and decision makers to stand alongside us championing the change we desperately need in our workplaces and in our communities.
I believe education and awareness is the key. We need more courageous people – men and women – to take a stand, to share their stories and uphold and defend the values and principles we all should all hold dear.
Rabia’s memoir, Equal Justice, is available as paperback and e-book through Pan Macmillan. To grab a signed copy or to keep updated about Rabia’s work, head to rabiasiddique.com.au